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How to Spot Osteoarthritis Early and Why It’s Important

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a common joint disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. It is a chronic and degenerative condition. That means the symptoms of OA will progressively worsen over several months or years.

OA can significantly limit an individual’s movement and interfere with daily activities, such as brushing teeth or climbing the stairs. While the condition is irreversible, there are ways to slow down its progression.

Treatment for early stages of OA involves pain-relieving medications, such as Tylenol and Advil. However, bone realignment surgery or joint replacement surgery might be necessary as the disease reaches more advanced stages; some patients need to take cortisone pills regularly to maintain joint health (Source: StuffThatWorks).

That emphasizes the importance of early detection of osteoarthritis. Most patients are diagnosed with the condition only after it has reached an advanced stage. It is, therefore, important for patients to keep an eye out for initial symptoms of OA.

Detecting the condition at an early stage can help decelerate or prevent its progression to the severe stages. That, in turn, will go a long way to enhance patients’ quality of life.

This blog will discuss the common symptoms for each stage of osteoarthritis. Also, it will delve deeper into the available treatment options and list ways to slow down its progression.

Osteoarthritis Stages, Symptoms and Treatment: A Closer Look

Osteoarthritis is caused by the gradual breakdown of protective cartilage tissue that prevents bones in a joint from rubbing against each other. Typically, diagnosis of OA involves X-ray and MRI scans of the affected joints.

Patients will also likely have to undergo a physical exam. Additionally, a doctor might order blood tests and joint fluid analysis to rule out other conditions, such as gout and rheumatoid arthritis.

The problem with these diagnostic techniques is that they only detect OA when there has already been significant joint damage. However, early signs of OA can manifest even before any apparent cartilage breakdown or bone growths.

It is, therefore, important for patients to keep an eye out for OA symptoms before they spiral out of control.

Stage 0 (Pre-Osteoarthritis)

This stage is characterized by a healthy joint with no visible signs of damage. At this point, an individual won’t experience any pain, swelling, or tenderness in the joints.

However, depending on their age, gender, occupation and family history, some people are more likely to develop osteoarthritis later in life. Similarly, severe joint injury and accidents could increase their predisposition to OA.


Patients are advised to talk to their primary care provider and assess their risk of developing severe OA symptoms. They can start implementing suitable lifestyle and dietary changes to protect their joints based on that information.

Also, women who have experienced or are undergoing menopause should be particularly careful about maintaining bone and joint health.

Stage 1 (Early)

Patients at this stage show negligible signs of cartilage breakdown or bone deformities. But they might experience mild pain in the joints after prolonged physical activity.

Detection of early OA isn’t possible using traditional X-rays and MRI scans. However, medical researchers are working on AI-based solutions to identify subtle changes in the joints years before the onset of symptoms.

Similarly, imaging technology is being developed to detect signs of OA from changes in the joint at a molecular level. An imbalance of water, collagen fibers, chondrocytes and protein molecules in the joints will help diagnose OA at a presymptomatic or early stage.


OA treatment involves preventive measures at this stage, such as exercise, occupational therapy, dietary changes, and strength training. The idea is to strengthen and protect the joints to prevent further deterioration.

Stage 2 (Mild)

Pain in the joints after rigorous physical activity is the most common symptom at this stage of OA. Also, patients might experience stiffness and difficulty in straightening or bending the joints. This, in turn, can adversely affect their mobility.

X-ray images in stage 2 of OA show visible bone spur growth. However, cartilage breakdown may not be apparent.


Patients are prescribed pain-relieving medications and supportive devices for symptomatic relief, such as knee braces. Also, low-impact exercises, nutritional supplements and weight loss will help prevent further damage to the joints.

Stage 3 (Moderate)

Patients in stage 3 of osteoarthritis show visible signs of joint damage due to cartilage breakdown. X-ray images show narrowing of the gap between bones in affected joints.

The most common symptom is pain after walking, climbing the stairs, and performing other physical activities. Other symptoms include stiffness in the joints, particularly in the morning, and swelling.


Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Advil and Aleve, are used to relieve pain in stage 3 of OA. Also, doctors often prescribe injections containing hyaluronic acid or corticosteroids to alleviate joint pain.

A balanced diet, exercise routine and weight control measures continue to be important at this stage. Patients can also leverage massage and physical therapy to keep their joints agile and healthy.

Stage 4 (Severe)

This is the most advanced stage of osteoarthritis. It is characterized by severe joint pain, inflammation, swelling and stiffness. Patients will likely have limited mobility and struggle to perform routine activities at this stage.

X-ray images show a complete breakdown of cartilage and negligible presence of synovial fluid.


Apart from pain-relieving medication, surgery is the only treatment option for severe OA. Patients have to undergo bone realignment or joint replacement surgery to regain mobility.

The Importance of Early Detection

First things first – there is no known cure for osteoarthritis. However, diagnosing the condition early on can help prevent it from progressing to the advanced stages. With the right lifestyle changes and preventive measures, a patient may never experience severe OA symptoms in their lifetime.

It highlights the importance of staying in touch with an experienced medical professional and watching out for subtle changes in joint health and mobility. Also, patients are advised to eat a balanced diet and follow a low-impact exercise routine to maintain healthy joints.

Tricia Montano

Tricia founded Pain Free Working in 2019 due to suffering from degenerative disc disease in her L5-S1 from working an office job for the past 18 years. She and her team strive on finding and reviewing the best office equipment to help fellow pain sufferers find relief and to enable people like her to do their jobs comfortably.